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Johnson resumes return job for homecoming vs. Saints

geoff mosher csnphilly

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Posted 03 November 2012 - 09:20 AM

Mosher

Johnson resumes return job for homecoming vs. Saints

November 3, 2012, 8:00 am

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If there are remedies for their lethargic punt return team, the Eagles hope it’s the fast track at the Superdome and the experience from someone who’s found the end zone there in big games.

With receiver Mardy Gilyard sidelined by a hamstring injury, punt return duties against the Saints on Monday go back to rookie Damaris Johnson, who grew up in a small town about 20 miles outside New Orleans and won a high school state championship in the Saints’ home arena.

Johnson, an undrafted rookie who set return records at Tulsa, started the season as the punt returner but struggled in his decision making and didn’t break any returns longer than 13 yards.

The Eagles sat him for the past two games in favor of the veteran Gilyard, who didn’t fare much better. DeSean Jackson also returned a punt for minus-three yards, an indication that Johnson wasn’t single-handedly responsible for the Eagles’ 30th-ranked return team.

“I don’t think it was much that I was doing wrong, I think it was just numbers-wise I ended up sitting for two weeks,” Johnson said, referring to the Eagles finally activating receiver Riley Cooper. “I mean, I got to sit back and watch and learn more.”

Johnson has loftier expectations for his homecoming Monday night in front of about 30 family members and in a stadium where he once caught two touchdowns to help Destrehan High win the Louisiana 5A football championship.

He left as the school’s all-time leader in receptions (154), receiving yards (2,620) and touchdowns (30) and headed to Tulsa, where in just three seasons he became the NCAA’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards (7,796) and kick return yards (3,417).

One of Johnson’s best college games came at the Superdome, where he recorded 252 total yards and returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown against Tulane in his first game back there since winning the state high school championship. He also added 76 kick-return yards and three catches for 69 yards, leading the 37-13 route of home Tulane.

“I’m excited to go back home and play,” Johnson said. “I have a lot of family at the game and just try to go out and get a win.”

Special teams coordinator Bobby April hasn’t lost faith that Johnson can still ignite the return team and that his blockers can create the little room Johnson needs to recreate some of his past magic.

April also anticipates that the two-game hiatus gave Johnson time to see the game from a different viewpoint. Saints punter Thomas Morstead is the NFL leader in net punting average (45.2), but the Saints only field the league’s 22nd-ranked punt coverage unit.

“Well, I’d like to see him manage the game properly, make good decisions on getting to the ball. Balls that he should catch, I want to see him catch, ones that he should let go, I want to see him let them go,” April said, “and then most importantly, every time, every game, every player, is (expected to prioritize) ball security.

“He’s got the running skills. If we give him some space he’ll make something happen running it. That’s kind of the given. We just have to give him the space. Hopefully we do a good job of giving Damaris an opportunity.”

Before the start of the season, Johnson talked about the potential he and fellow rookie kick returner Brandon Boykin could bring to the return teams, each of which ranked in the bottom six last year.

The first seven games have been a reality check for both, but Johnson hasn’t let the slow start cloud his optimism.

“Every game I envision I’m going to return a punt or return a kick,” he said. “It’s been pretty hard. It’s the National Football League. They practice just how we practice.”

E-mail Geoff Mosher at gmosher@comcastsportsnet.com.